Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Nine Symphonies [343.26]
Annette Dasch (soprano); Eva Vogel (mezzo); Christian Elsner (tenor); Dimitry Ivashchenko (bass); Rundfunkchor Berlin,
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live and in rehearsal, 3-16 October 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
German sung texts and English translations included
Full product details at end of review
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS BPHR 160091 [5 CDs + 3
When this lavish set arrived with me for review I was excited and daunted in equal measure. I had heard some months ago that the set was to be released and I was very keen to hear it. However, the prospect of reviewing a Beethoven cycle is not to be taken lightly. For one thing, how does one begin to compare a new cycle of these oft-recorded symphonies with versions that have preceded it? Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting for one moment that one cannot – or should not – undertake such comparisons but it’s a very tricky thing to do. One option would have been to compare and contrast Rattle’s 2002 cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic. That set wasn’t universally admired as I recall, but I bought it when it first came out and I liked it, as did Marc Bridle (review), though Colin Anderson was much more guarded about it (review). Simon Thompson welcomed the cycle when it was reissued (review). Another option would have been to select one or more versions by other conductors – possibly Karajan with the same orchestra in 1963 (review). However, the trouble is that everyone will have their own views as to the merits of Karajan or any number of other conductors in these symphonies.
In the end, and in the knowledge that at least two of my colleagues were also going to review this new set and, in all probability, reference other versions, I decided to adopt a different approach. These are all live performances, albeit each is edited together from a couple of performances. So I decided to appraise each one on a single viewing of the Blu-Ray videos and treat them as if I were doing a concert review for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard. I made one further decision, namely that, with the exception of one concert, I would consider each symphony in the order in which Rattle played them. This may not be the conventional approach to take for reviewing a recording but it’s one which I hope will be helpful in its own way, especially in conjunction with the verdicts of my colleagues.
Before discussing the performances, however, I should mention the two documentary features, not least because I would recommend that anyone acquiring this set should view these, as I did, before experiencing the performances. ‘Living with Beethoven’ has footage of performances and rehearsals shot during the time when Rattle and the orchestra were giving the two cycles from which these recordings have been edited. We see performance or rehearsal extracts from Symphonies 1, 3, 5, 6 and 9. The feature also includes a lot of performer comments, some by the conductor and, chiefly, by members of the orchestra. Rattle’s contributions are excised from the second bonus feature in which he talks about the symphonies.
I found ‘Living with Beethoven’ very interesting on a number of levels. I’m not entirely sure if Rattle and the BPO have given a complete Beethoven symphony cycle together before but I infer from some of the remarks by members of the orchestra that this is the first such venture between them. There are plenty of indications during the film that the players experienced a palpable excitement about the project. After the two complete Berlin cycles, which form the basis for these recordings, the team were scheduled to present the cycle five more times: in the Philharmonie de Paris; in Carnegie Hall, New York; in the Musikverein, Vienna; and finally in Suntory Hall, Tokyo in May 2016.
All the observations made in the film are interesting but two especially caught my attention. One is by Sir Simon himself. He says that it’s easy to make Beethoven’s music too sophisticated or elegant: “I have the feeling, probably, that the more plainspoken this music is, the better it is.” There’s also a very telling observation from Daniel Stabrawa. He joined the orchestra in 1983, becoming one of its 1st Concert-masters in 1986, so his time with the orchestra takes in the last six years of the Karajan era, the whole of the Abbado period and Rattle’s tenure to date. He has this to say (I quote the English subtitles): “In Karajan’s day, after the war, people simply wanted to experience beauty. The music had to sound beautiful and to be perfectly mellow. No aggressivity! It was all part of the period after the terrible war. When Claudio [Abbado] came one generation replaced another. In Italy sound is conceived differently: rather lighter and more airy. And Simon [Rattle] combines these two: Claudio’s briskness, translucency and virtuosity with Karajan’s deep tone colours.” I think it’s instructive to bear in mind those comments by someone steeped in recent BPO history as one listens to these performances.
In the other feature Rattle talks about the symphonies. His talk is unscripted – though carefully prepared, obviously – and he speaks direct to the camera, informally and engagingly, illustrating the music at the piano. His objective is to try to give a sense of what he and the orchestra sought to achieve in this cycle. One of the topics he discusses is the size of the orchestra. His remarks are very interesting indeed: in summary he builds the size up gradually from the earliest symphonies, with a step change in forces for the Eroica, but he reserves the fullest forces for the Ninth. He also talks about the vexed question of Beethoven’s metronome markings: in essence he takes careful note of these but is not fettered by them, an approach which I applaud. He suggests, for example, that with the exception of Bartók all composers, Including Beethoven, heard a speed in their head – and then set it down as a metronome mark – that is almost invariably faster than the speed at which is physically appropriate to play the music. Finally, he is candid enough to say “I’m a conductor who tends to do too much to things”, expressing the hope that in these performances he’s leaving Beethoven alone when he needs to be left alone. Let’s see, shall we?
All the programmes were given twice apart from the pairing of the Fourth and Seventh symphonies. Those two works were played at an initial concert and then repeated twice more. I’ll consider those performances later. I began my journey through Rattle’s Beethoven with the First and Eroica symphonies. I was glad to note that throughout the cycle the violins are placed to left and right of the conductor. The cellos are on the left of the first violins with the violas between the cellos and the second violins. The double basses are placed behind the cellos. I enjoyed the First Symphony very much. The first movement is swift and lithe; energy levels are high. In the graceful Andante cantabile con moto Rattle takes the con moto part of Beethoven’s instruction to heart. The reading is Haydnesque and exhibits charm though I think some listeners may feel, as I do, that the pace is just a touch too swift. Though Beethoven styled his third movement as a Menuetto it’s a prototype scherzo and, like most conductors, Rattle plays it as such. The performance is very dynamic with the accents acutely observed and the timpani – played with hard sticks - making a strong impression. I chuckled at Rattle’s observation that the finale is “Haydn at the gym”; his performance is swift and full of brio. In other hands the performance might sound relentless but Rattle and his players bring out the wit and bonhomie. The cycle has been launched auspiciously.
In the Eroica Beethoven is painting on a much bigger and bolder canvas. From the word go there’s great energy in the playing and the development section is especially noteworthy for the tension and drama with which Rattle and his orchestra invest the music. This movement is most impressively done. So too is the Marcia funèbre. Rattle shapes the music with great feeling. His wind soloists are particularly eloquent, especially the principal oboe. The middle of the movement has great power and weight. I wondered whether in the last two or three minutes Rattle, caught up in the moment, doesn’t mould the music just a little too much; the performance is almost Mahlerian. However, there’s no denying the eloquence with which this intense account of the movement is brought to an end. At the start of the finale Rattle visibly relishes the witty pointing of the theme by his players. The Allegro variations that follow are super: there’s plenty of thrust and energy here. The Poco andante section is very expressively handled while the Presto conclusion is exhilarating. This symphony has long been my favourite among the nine and I admired greatly this excellent performance.
The next pairing in the cycle consisted of the Second and Fifth symphonies. I listened to the Second with particular interest after Rattle had pointed out in his introductory film a number of instances where Beethoven revisited this early symphony when composing the Ninth. The first movement is very spirited indeed and the performance is exciting and dynamic. Some may feel that that the music is over-projected, the accents too strongly delivered, but I was convinced. Rattle’s way with the music makes clear that this symphony is a bridge between the Beethoven of the First Symphony and the composer we encounter in the Eroica. The Larghetto is winningly done. There’s warmth in the playing of the strings and the woodwinds, the mellow clarinets and bassoons a particular pleasure. The music is songful and I would say that at Rattle’s well-judged tempo it flows actively. The virtuoso performance of the finale has terrific energy though the lyrical moments are done proper justice. Beethoven’s quirky humour comes across well. I enjoyed this symphony very much.
The first movement of the Fifth is thrusting and urgent. This is a work that the BPO must have played countless times yet I was struck by how animated and engaged the players were. The development section is white-hot and, indeed, the movement as a whole seems to be over in a flash. The tempo for the second movement is quite fleet but this doesn’t prevent the orchestra from bringing out all the little nuances in the score. Rattle ensures that there’s great dynamism in the third movement and the ‘spooky’ pizzicato section is executed with the utmost precision. In the transition to the finale there’s great tension and suppressed energy: Rattle seems to leave the crescendo right to the last minute. Then the finale bursts forth in a blaze of colour and C major optimism. Once again the players show tremendous commitment to the cause and the performance carries a palpable sense of exaltation. A terrific reading of the finale is crowned by the Presto when the orchestra, spurred on by their conductor, seems to go into overdrive. I’m not surprised that the Berlin audience greeted the performance with acclamation.
All the programmes in this cycle were played twice with the exception of the one which combined the Fourth and Seventh symphonies. An extra performance was given before all the other concerts but I’ll consider it now, in its place when the cycle proper had begun. In the Fourth I admired very much the compelling mystery and tension that Rattle generates in the Introduction. The Allegro vivace fairly bounds along and the dynamic contrasts are tellingly done. Amid all the energy there’s also room in this performance for elegance in the passages where Beethoven relaxes a bit. The second movement flows beautifully. Here, I think, is an example of Rattle allowing Beethoven to be plainspoken, yet in doing so sophistication is not banished: the BPO’s highly refined playing sees to that. Bluff good humour is to the fore in the third movement but here I especially appreciated the attention to detail in the trio which produces very characterful results. The extrovert finale demands and receives all the virtuosity at the orchestra’s command.
You might be forgiven a double-take when you see the orchestra assembled for the Seventh symphony. Yes, there are indeed two contrabassoons on parade, seated not next to their bassoonist colleagues but instead at the back of the orchestra between the double basses and the horns. Rattle explains in his introduction to the cycle that this idea was suggested to him by Sir Charles Mackerras, who pointed out to him that Beethoven had included the instruments in the orchestra for the first performance. It seems that the idea was to reinforce the double bass part using instruments that produced a rather more focussed sound. It seems that the instruments were used in rehearsal but not in the performance itself; Rattle speculates that the noise made by the primitive contras of Beethoven’s day was just too much of a good thing. Mackerras urged his younger colleague to try it one day and so Rattle, his curiosity piqued, has done just that. I stand to be corrected but I think the contras’ doubling of the double bass part is selective. To be truthful, even when I listened to the performance in its finest sound option, the BD-A, I really couldn’t really detect the contribution of the contras but, on the other hand, neither did they intrude.
As to the performance itself, the first movement Introduction is splendidly done. The Vivace bounds along like a thoroughbred, the horns making a fine contribution. Rattle paces the music sensibly, not rushing it unduly, and he and the orchestra make the music dance, as it should. A couple of times he slows down for expressive effect, most notably just before the coda, and then resumes the main tempo. I can understand why the tempo modifications are made at these junctures but I’m not entirely convinced. At the start of the second movement there’s a quiet solidity to the bass line, perhaps due to the presence of the contrabassoons. The woodwind-led second idea is expressively done; indeed, there’s a Romantic touch. This movement offers a classic example of Rattle’s attention to detail. Some may feel he’s fussy. I don’t; rather, I admire the way he takes nothing for granted even when conducting a much-played masterpiece such as this. The quicksilver scherzo is nimble and good-humoured. At times Rattle seems content to let the music play itself, contributing just a flick of a finger or a raised eyebrow. Elsewhere he’s very actively engaged, not least in the trio. The finale is rapier-like. The pace is very fast but the playing is always completely controlled. The members of the orchestra are at times literally on the edge of their seats during this white-hot performance, which is no less exciting than Carlos Kleiber’s famous 1976 recording (review). Indeed, I’m inclined to say it has a marginal edge over Kleiber, which is praise indeed. This performance sweeps all before it and it’s no surprise that at the end the conductor and orchestra are cheered to the rafters.
The fourth concert in the cycle paired Beethoven’s two F major symphonies. The first movement of the Eighth is bright and good-humoured. The playing is full of energy and brio and the rhythmic articulation is crisp. I was astonished to learn from Rattle’s introductory talk that in some early performances of this symphony the second movement, deemed trivial, was replaced by the second movement of the Seventh. There’s no such nonsense here and we are treated to a performance that’s strong on wit and precision. The finale bursts with vitality. As so often in these performances, the accents are used as springboards to impel the music forward. I really enjoyed this spirited rendition and, indeed, I liked the whole symphony very much.
There’s much to admire, too, in the Pastoral. Rattle sets a purposeful but not excessive pace in the first movement. The playing here is a constant source of delight; there’s warmth in the orchestra’s tone and I thought Daniel Stabrawa’s comment about the orchestra’s sound under Rattle was especially apposite. It’s noticeable how Rattle frequently seems to caress the lines as they emerge during the performance. We glimpse a delightful ‘Scene by the Brook’; the music is given a relaxed, easy flow. The third movement is a merry dance, as it should be. The country folk would have had to tread quite nimbly to dance to this performance but I like the chosen tempo very much. The storm clouds gather menacingly and the tempest itself is pretty intense. This comes as no surprise for in his introductory talk Rattle makes it clear that he sees this movement as much more than a meteorological storm; it’s psychological too and he goes so far as to speak of “terror”. The orchestral response here is vivid with strong contrasts across a wide dynamic range. The ‘Hirtengesang’ is beautifully done. The playing is expertly weighted and nuanced across all sections of the orchestra and although Rattle lets the music take its course unimpeded his attention to detail is still very evident. Yet again I’m impressed that he takes nothing for granted. The symphony ends in warm tranquillity and the conductor very rightly holds the moment after the last chord before allowing applause.
And so to the Ninth. Here the full forces of the Berliner Philharmoniker are on parade with double woodwind and the foundation of the sound built solidly on no fewer than eight double basses. I was interested to note that not one but two of the orchestra’s 1st Concertmasters were on duty for this performance – all three have played a part in the cycle: on this occasion next to Noah Bendix-Balgley on the first desk we find Daniel Stabrawa. The huge first movement is thrusting and powerful, the music crackling with tension. It’s a very dramatic – but not overwrought – performance and the players show palpable commitment. You really feel the need to catch your breath after the movement has run its course. The scherzo is by turns nimble and robust, the incisive timpani punctuating the music excitingly. The trio is deft and Rattle allows no let-up in momentum. In the slow movement the watchword is, very rightly, cantabile. During this movement the orchestra’s playing reaches new heights of refinement and eloquence. Rattle fashions a thing of great beauty out of this movement and his players are with him every step of the way. For the sixteen minutes or so that this movement takes we are treated to penetrating conducting and sovereign playing. For me this is arguably the peak of the whole set.
With scarcely a pause Rattle plunges into the finale. During the opening pages the recitative episodes are well integrated with Beethoven’s reminiscences of the preceding movements. The Ode to Joy tune emerges softly and is built incrementally. The soloists are placed behind the orchestra and in front of the choir. The bass Dimitry Ivashchenko makes a splendid impression with the clarity of his opening solo and the rest of the quartet do well also. The Rundfunkchor Berlin, trained by Simon Halsey, makes a terrific contribution. They have demanding music to sing but these professional singers really deliver the goods. They sing from memory, too. The performance generates great excitement and ends in jubilation, all the performers giving their all in the Beethoven cause. Unsurprisingly, the Berlin audience accords them a rapturous ovation.
As I said at the start of this review, I have chiefly appraised these performances through the Blu-Ray video as if I’d been attending the concerts. The sound quality is very good indeed, though viewers who, unlike me, have their TV connected to their hi-fi system will certainly get even better results. The picture quality and the camerawork is top notch, as is always the case with this label. I have, however, also sampled the CDs and the BD-A disc. Here the performances will not be absolutely identical to what we see on the videos because more editing, including editing from rehearsals, will have been possible on the audio recording.
The CD sound is excellent. Out of interest I made a couple of spot comparisons with Rattle’s VPO set which was recorded by EMI at live performances in the Musikverein in 2002. The EMI sound has more resonance around the orchestra but I had the impression that, at least as recorded, the sound of the VPO strings, and the violins in particular, has more of an edge than we experience from their Berlin rivals. The BPO recording is richer and fuller and I prefer it. Here I think we experience the benefit that the Berlin engineers gain from regularly recording this orchestra in this venue for the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall.
Turn to the BD-A disc, however, and you experience these performances at their very best. I listened using the 2.0 Stereo option. There’s even more definition and presence to the sound as compared with the excellent CDs. In every symphony that I sampled the impact of the orchestra and the wide dynamic range that they achieve is experienced to best advantage in the BD-A format. I sampled the First, Third, Seventh and Ninth symphonies and my most extensive sampling was done with the Ninth. The first movement of the Ninth, which had greatly impressed me on the Blu-Ray video, was absolutely gripping when heard in pure audio. In the slow movement the sheer refinement of the orchestra’s playing and the wonderful dynamic range they achieve was thrillingly conveyed. In the finale the voice of the bass soloist seemed almost to leap out of the right-hand speaker; he and his fellow soloists can be heard to even better advantage in this format. The choir sounded terrific in the video format. With the benefit of BD-A I can upgrade that assessment: they are superb – for example, the way they sing the Ode to Joy after the Turkish March episode is thrilling. I’m sure it was the right thing to do to review this set using the video option because that enabled me to experience the performances as if I were a member of the audience. However, I’m certain that when I return to these performances in the future I shall go for the BD-A option. Incidentally, on the BD-A – but not on the CDs – the symphonies are presented in numerical order.
As we’ve come to expect from this label the documentation, which is in German and English, is very good indeed. As well as very full information about the details of the performances there’s a substantial essay about the symphonies by Jan Caeyers. There’s also a very interesting note by Jonathan del Mar about his work on the critical edition of the scores which he prepared for Bärenreiter. Rattle uses that edition, as he did for his VPO recording.
It’s time to sum up. When Rattle’s VPO Beethoven cycle was issued by EMI in 2003, I remember reading somewhere a suggestion that the members of the Berliner Philharmoniker were a bit miffed that their new chief had recorded the Beethoven symphonies in Vienna just a few months before taking up his appointment with them. That may well have been idle speculation or mere tittle-tattle. If, however, there was any truth in the suggestion then I hope the Berliners now feel vindicated. It’s taken a long time for Rattle to ascend this Everest of the repertoire with them but in the thirteen or so years they’d been together by the time they came to these concerts a great understanding has developed between orchestra and conductor. They are very accustomed to him and he knows just what results he can get out of this orchestra. The benefits of that long relationship and deep mutual understanding are evidenced throughout these performances.
This Beethoven cycle represents a formidable achievement. It’s both memorable and distinguished. It would be rash – and futile – to attempt to move towards a “best in show” verdict; there are far too many excellent modern cycles on the market for that, to say nothing of cycles by the masters of the past such as Furtwängler, Klemperer and Toscanini. Among the modern versions that I’ve heard my favourites are those conducted by Chailly, Mackerras and Vänskä. These are all estimable sets and all three conductors bring many insights. I’m painfully aware also that there are a number of other equally distinguished sets that I’ve not heard, not least the one which Claudio Abbado, Rattle’s predecessor, recorded live with this same orchestra in 2000/2001 and which is available in audio and video formats (review ~ review). I can say without hesitation that this new Rattle set takes its place by right among the leading versions that I’ve heard. The presentation of this set is lavish and it does full justice to the peerless playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker and to the restless musical curiosity and inspiring leadership of their conductor.
Previous review: Michael Cookson
Full Content Details
Berliner Philharmoniker Beethoven Edition conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
a) Audio CDs
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1799/1800) [24.42]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat major, Op. 55 Eroica (1802/04) [49.09]
rec. live, 6 & 12 October 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1800/02) [30.51]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1803/05, 1807/08) [30.32]
rec. live, 7 & 13 October 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat major, Op. 60 (1806) [33.29]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811/12) [39.12]
rec. live, 3, 9 & 15 October 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 Pastoral (1803/08) [42.36]
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812) [25.08]
rec. live, 8 & 14 October 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 Choral (1822/24) [67.47]
rec. live, 10 & 16 October 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin
b) 1 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc
Symphonies No’s 1-9 in Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc in High Resolution Audio
i) 2.0 LPCM Stereo 96 kHz/24bit
ii) 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 48 kHz
Running time: 344 minutes
c) 2 Live Concert Videos Blu-ray in High Definition
Disc 1: Symphonies 1/3; 2/5; 4/7
Disc 2: Symphonies 8/6; 9
Picture: Full High Definition 1080/60i - 16:9
i) 2.0 LPCM Stereo 48kHz/16bit
ii) 5.0 Surround (upmix) DTS-HD Master Audio 48 kHz
Region Code: ABC (worldwide)
Running time: 239:00 & 155:00
For Symphony No. 9: English, German, Japanese subtitles
Bonus video footage
i) The Berliner Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall [1.28]
ii) Behind the Scenes [5.00]
i) Documentary: ‘Living with Beethoven.’ Produced by Magdalena Zieba-Schwind & Daniel Finkernagel [45.00]
ii) Sir Simon Rattle talks about Beethoven Symphonies [49.00]
Bonus film languages and subtitles.
d) Audio Download
Personal code for High Resolution Audio Files of the entire album
24bit - up to 192 kHz